The last 10 days of a presidential campaign is typically a frenzied spectacle of barnstorming candidates hitting multiple swing states daily.
That is not the type of campaign Joe Biden has been running.
On Sunday, he held no campaign events. On Monday, he stayed close to home in Wilmington, Del. making only a brief local stop where he signaled he’d travel to swing states between then and Election Day. And that was after spending much of last week off the trail as he prepared for the final debate.
By contrast, Trump crisscrossed the country over the weekend, holding multiple events in swing states. His campaign said that pace is only expected to ramp up to as many as six events in a single day in the runup to Election Day.
Biden’s low-key approach is highly unusual this close to an election, but it’s a testament to the extraordinary dynamics of the 2020 race, with a deadly pandemic reaching crisis levels in dozens of states. Democrats point to fresh polling that shows Trump’s rallies are a net negative for him in the nation’s core swing states, where concerns about the spread of coronavirus are strong.
Biden’s strategy is a sign of confidence and caution: The former vice president has stuck with his plan of running a slow-but-steady race premised on the idea that Trump steps all over himself when he's out campaigning and best to keep making the election a referendum the president's behavior. That, plus minimizing the threat of a Covid-19 infection.
“The biggest threat to Joe Biden is Covid. He can’t get it,” said Brad Coker, pollster for Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy, whose last presidential survey showed Biden leading narrowly Trump in Florida. “Aside from the health implications, if Biden got Covid it would blow up his candidacy and his whole narrative of being safe, social distancing, wearing a mask.”
Coker said there was also an element of “confidence” to Biden’s travel schedule but compared it to the prevent defense in football where a “team is playing not to lose. They figure they probably have this thing won and that he shouldn’t make a mistake. It’s not as if they think him being on the campaign trail can seal this election up, but he could make a mistake. So why take the risk?”
Biden on Monday defended his travel schedule, telling reporters he planned to make the rounds in upcoming days and highlighting events he’s held virtually.
“I'm gonna be going to Iowa. I’m going [to] Wisconsin, I’m going to Georgia, I'm going to Florida, and maybe other places as well,” Biden said. “There's a lot we have been doing as well, in terms of being online, and everything from fundraising efforts to making sure we meet — I met today with a group of leaders in the Democratic party, laying out where we're going to go, getting their input and the like, so we're constantly, there has not been a day that hasn't been a 12-hour day yet.”
Biden said he hoped to win Pennsylvania “by the grace of God" and expressed confidence in the swing states of Michigan and Wisconsin.
"The blue wall has to be reestablished," he said.
Still, even the thought of a lighter schedule triggers PTSD in some swing state Democrats who recall the rosy predictions of 2016 only to watch their nominee go down in flames.
In Wisconsin, Trump drew thousands of people to a Saturday rally in the Milwaukee suburb of Waukesha, even as he was criticized for holding a “super spreader” event at a time when the state was forced to open a field hospital on state fairgrounds as hospitals reached capacity. Trump plans another Wisconsin visit Tuesday and Vice President Mike Pence lands in the state on Wednesday.
Biden has visited Wisconsin just twice during the general election; the last time was Sept. 20. Hillary Clinton famously did not visit Wisconsin during the general election campaign then lost the state by fewer than 23,000 votes. Biden is ahead of Trump by 5 points in the pivotal battleground state, according to polling averages, but members of both parties believe the margin is narrower.
“I would hope that the mistake of 2016 is not replicated by not paying enough attention to Wisconsin,” said Terrance Warthen, former co-chair of Our Revolution Wisconsin. “I find it odd how little these guys — I don’t want to say work because you don’t know what he’s doing — but he seems rather content to just let his opponent shoot himself in the foot and I don’t think you can completely rely on that. I think you need to be out there every day at the very least, interrupting the news cycle.”
Trump has held 48 events in battleground states over 40 days, which includes time he took off the road after he became sick with Covid and was hospitalized. The president sometimes visited multiple cities in one day. In that same period, Biden held 37 events. Biden traveled fewer than 29 days since the conventions.
The Trump campaign, brushing aside concerns about Covid-19 spread at rallies, said the contrast of Trump’s travel schedule with that of Biden’s is a personification of the two men’s energy level and work ethic. They also criticized Biden for relying too heavily on TV ads.
“The president has been energetically campaigning in all of the key battleground states ... we're running a comprehensive campaign,” said Trump campaign spokesperson Tim Murtaugh. “The president of the United States is hitting the campaign trail every single day. He's gonna ramp it up even further. And I wouldn't be surprised to see five or six events on any given day before we're finished.”
While Democrats pan the rallies as an exercise to excite a base that’s already voting for Trump, the campaign said an analysis of its own data indicates that an average of a quarter of those attending the president’s rallies either did not vote for the president in 2016 or didn’t vote at all.
“It does fire up the president's supporters, and it does get the base excited about his reelection, but it also attracts new people from rally to rally,” Murtaugh said.
The campaign added that each event generates local media coverage that equates to tens of millions of dollars in paid advertising.
Biden’s campaign rejects the criticism of his schedule, calling it a media obsession fed by a desperate Trump campaign.
“The polling in this race has been very stable over time,” said a Biden adviser. “People know Joe Biden. They like him. They know there’s a pandemic. And they know Trump has failed managing it.”
In the campaign’s thinking, the adviser added, rallies don’t matter much to voters. Even big events — such as the Black Lives Matter protests and the violence that erupted in some cities — didn’t significantly alter the standing of the race and, therefore, final-countdown rallies are of limited use. The campaign has also made a point in casting Biden as someone who leads by example, taking extra precautions to protect himself and others from the virus. By contrast, Trump himself was hospitalized due to Covid-19 and a cadre of his advisers and family members also tested positive.
A new poll from Global Strategy Group and Hart Research, paid for by the liberal Priorities USA super PAC, bolsters the Biden campaign’s argument about Trump’s packed rallies. The president hasn’t worn a mask or required attendees to wear them.
According to the poll, 56 percent of voters in Wisconsin have a less favorable impression of Trump as a result of those rallies, compared to 26 percent who have a more favorable view of him. The results are similar in Arizona (55-26 percent), Florida (58-22 percent), North Carolina (55-25 percent), Pennsylvania (58-22 percent) and Michigan (56-25 percent).
In neighboring Michigan, people can feel the Biden’s campaign presence physically and online in Detroit, according to Democratic consultant Virgil K. Smith.
“They learned their lesson from 2016,” Smith said. “There’s tons of mail. They’re calling. They’re texting. There are signs everywhere. Kamala Harris was just here. Her husband was here twice. We’ve seen Biden.”
Florida has seen a relative explosion of Biden campaign activity recently. Biden and his allies have lavished spending and attention on the nation’s biggest swing state in an attempt to crush Trump’s reelection or force the president’s campaign to spend so much here that he withdraws from other swing states, particularly in the Upper Midwest.
Biden paid his first visit to Miami earlier this month and visits Broward County on Thursday. His running mate, Kamala Harris, visited South Florida in September and former President Barack Obama came Saturday to Miami and returns to Orlando on Tuesday.
Arizona is different from the other swing states because it didn’t used to be one. So Democrats are more enthusiastic about just seeing the nominee and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, said D.J. Quinlan, who is advising Mark Kelly’s Senate campaign and Rep. Tom O'Halleran’s reelection. Biden and Harris visited Arizona for the first time together earlier this month.
“We were also hit hard by coronavirus in June. So it’s not like lots of people want to go to rallies,” Quinlan said.
Caitlin Oprysko contributed to this report.